Often caricatured, sometimes arcane, strategy is a discipline which some in the HE sector may feel better belongs in the corporate world. However, there are real benefits for a university in having a clear and agreed view on where it positions itself in a fluid environment, what it wants to achieve over the coming years, and how it intends to do those things.


In the first of two posts, SUMS Consultant Tom Owen-Smith demystifies strategy development and strategy delivery by breaking them down to their essentials.

There are many definitions of strategy, but for the present purposes, we’ll understand it as an organisation’s approach to formulating and achieving its longer-term objectives, at a relatively high level.

Approaches to Strategy Development

Alongside the myriad definitions of the term, it can seem like every strategy house or guru has their own singular methodology for strategy development, some of which are proprietary and can be expensive! While approaches can be varied, the essential elements of strategy development can be boiled down to a set of five basic stages. These may contain various substages and, crucially, should always be adapted towards the specific conditions where the work is being done:

  • Scope your project
  • Understand your position
  • Bring together
  • Consult and engage
  • Finalise

Here we’ll consider some of the issues and dilemmas that may arise in each of these stages. The stages may not always be neatly sequential and often bleed into each other. For example, it’s likely that you will start to generate options in your analysis stage, and various degrees of consultation and engagement are likely to be taking place throughout, not just in the penultimate phase.

Scope Your Project

The initial stage is a critical foundation for the whole process. In this stage, you put together your project team, identify your group of core stakeholders, define your key areas of focus and determine your outline approach.

Strategies stretch well beyond the annual budget and typically last longer – sometimes much longer – than the standard planning cycles which tend to look one or a few years ahead. It may have been a long time since your institution undertook a wholesale strategy development project, and it is quite possible that nobody on the leadership team was around when the “old” strategy was put together.

So, depending on what has happened in the meantime, this stage may involve revisiting the organisation’s mission statement (its raison d’etre) and vision (its aspiration towards a future state which reflects its mission).

Even if the mission and vision are taken as inputs to the process rather than materials for discussion, there is value at this stage in working through and reconfirming what matters to your institution and its stakeholders above all else. This will help to focus on the key questions that the strategy process needs to answer and likely indicate where you will spend most of your time. It may also provide the foundations of a framework which you might use later to assess options.

Other points to consider include: What has precipitated this process? Did the previous strategy simply run to its end? Did new leadership or some other change in priorities or operating conditions bring a need to cut it short? Are we even talking about a full-scale strategy development or more of a “refresh”? Sometimes a recalibration or adjustment of the existing strategy can be sufficient, without the need to start again from the first questions.

Following from those points, how far ahead should the strategy stretch? You want your strategy to last long enough to provide a stable direction for long-term planning, but how far ahead is realistic when conditions are changing so rapidly? Ultimately, a balance has to be struck, but being explicit about your choices at the outset helps to maintain clarity of thought further on in the process.

These points have spoken to the overall purpose and parameters which frame your objectives. Also important at this stage is how you structure your approach for the project. How will you engage your key stakeholders, particularly the members of the leadership team? Tasking them with leading a thematic workstream around their brief may be a way of securing their buy-in, but you may also want structures that allow for open-ended generation of ideas outside of the line of command. The project structures you choose will need to balance these objectives with the realities on the ground at your institution.

Understand Your Position

A rather bland name for this stage of strategy development, which can involve a range of approaches to exploring a varied landscape of questions, but it does what it says on the tin. The approaches you use can be quantitative or qualitative; they will involve looking both outside and inside your organisation, as well as backwards to identify trends and forwards to model how they might affect you in the future. You will also likely want to do some horizon scanning.

Many of the classic strategy tools (SWOT, PESTLE, competitor analysis amongst others) can of course be brought to bear here, as well as newer approaches such as “voice of the x”, where x could be applied to any important group of users or stakeholders. You might also want to look at your internal capabilities and structures and assess their fitness for facing your developing sense of objectives. Your sources might consist of internal or external datasets, qualitative interviews, focus groups, workshops or surveys.

This stage of the process can generate a huge amount of data, more than you are likely to be able to scour in its entirety. This is why it is important to plan clearly where and how you intend to gather your data, where you will focus your effort given time and resource constraints, and when you judge that you have enough information to tease out the insights that you need.

Your analysis will aim to understand root causes and materiality, allowing you to identify where focusing your strategy can make the biggest difference.

Bring Together

In this stage, you martial the insights from your data analysis for the purpose in hand. You are looking for advantages, opportunities, and points where you stand out against peers or competitors. You will shape these into proposals for potential actions that you could conceivably take. You will then make choices about which options to take forward and bring them together into a coherent whole. There is likely to be a blurred boundary with the previous stage, as options will begin to emerge as you conduct your analysis – and you may want to start modelling and testing these to refine your list iteratively.

It is important in this stage to be clear about how you select which proposals to take forward for your strategy out of a potentially large range of options. This is where referring back to your thinking about what really matters to your institution comes into its own. You will never be able to do everything, so remembering what is most important and which outcomes you most wish to achieve provides a helpful foundation for working out where to prioritise your finite resources of money, time and organisational energy.

A range of structured approaches can help with this. Two-way or multi-dimensional matrices can allow you to assess factors such as the benefits, costs and risks associated with your various options, while benefit-mapping can allow you to understand how individual initiatives would contribute to your overall goals. This thinking is often a balance between science and art. While such approaches will give you structured recommendations, as you work through them, new themes, commonalities or virtuous circles which were not evident in the analysis stage may begin to emerge.

Your goal in this stage is to bring together a broad approach of coordinated actions which best respond to your position as you expect it to develop over the strategy’s duration.

Consult and Engage

Once you are reasonably happy (and you may never be totally happy) with the broad planks of your strategy, it’s time to consult and engage your community!

The question of how wide and how comprehensive you go is influenced by many factors, including how much time and resource you have available in your project team, and how much bandwidth your colleagues have to think about strategy in the context of their current workload.

A communications plan is essential. It should be clear about which groups of your community you want to engage with, around which questions, how you will reach them and how you will be asking them to respond.

The two most crucial groups are of course your staff and students, but you might want to engage with wider groups such as alumni, important partners or other external constituencies such as policymakers, businesses and your local communities.

There is no hard rule as to how intensively you should engage with your audiences, but an obvious insight is that the more closely you engage with people and the more say you give them, the more involved they will feel in the final decisions. You may choose your approach on a line between broadcasting completed decisions to your community and asking your community to shape your overall goals and provide suggestions for how to achieve them. You may take different approaches to different questions or parts of the strategy.


Eventually, you will move to the point where you “finalise” your strategy. You may publish it in a pamphlet or on your website.

But it is ever really finalised? Things change, and as you move into “delivering” your strategy, you may find that you need to alter your approach. Good strategies should provide mechanisms that allow for flexibility to respond to unforeseen developments – and ideally, even some space for “emergent” strategy. You should also think about what circumstances might cause a fine tuning of your direction or a wholesale rethink.

Moving from strategy development to strategy delivery is complex and calls for coordination of people and resources across your whole institution. Don’t worry, we will look at this in another piece soon.

How Can an External Partner Help You Achieve Your Strategy Goals?

Organisations like SUMS can work with you to ensure that your strategy development project is informed by the best tools available, while also being sensitive to the realities of your organisation! To this end, a clear understanding of your needs while bringing in a range of perspectives is key in helping you understand your options and make informed choices best suited to your goals and your organisation.

At SUMS, we bring experience of shaping strategy development with universities of all shapes, sizes and colours. Our knowledge base covers not just a range of institutions, but the strategic landscape of the Higher Education sector as a whole. It is further enhanced by our membership model, which supports deep relationships and allows us to convene cross-sector engagement on a range of questions.

Our consulting teams combine this deep knowledge of HE with senior level experience from other sectors, including global commercial consultancies, retail and other complex sectors such as the NHS and local government. This model ensures that we retain our USP as a not-for-profit consultancy that truly understands the nuances of the HE sector while allowing us to identify the latest knowledge and innovation from outside the sector in the UK and internationally, and deploy it for the benefit of our clients.

If you’d like to know more about SUMS services in strategy and related areas, more information is available on the service pages of our website.

We’re also happy to discuss any topics raised here and what they could mean for you in more detail, free of charge. Contact Tom Owen-Smith at t.owen-smith@reading.ac.uk for more information.

Stay tuned for Tom’s next piece on strategy delivery, focusing on how a holistic approach to balancing planning and transformation initiatives will enable you to turn your strategic goals into reality.

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